Does your dog have a habit of chewing and eating everything in their path or is your cat constantly getting hairballs? If so, you may be worried about the possibility of a bowel obstruction. In this blog, our Erin vets explain what bowel obstructions in dogs and cats are and why it's very important to have this serious condition treated as quickly as possible.
The Causes of Bowel Obstructions in Dogs and Cats
Bowel obstructions can also be referred to as intestinal blockages. Obstructions can lead to various complications, including the prevention of food and water from passing through your pet's GI tract, decreasing their blood flow. Bowel obstructions in pets can also be fatal within 3-7 days.
Obstructions can happen anywhere along your pets digestive tract. Some may be able to pass into the esophagus, but not into the stomach. Others may pass into the stomach but not into the intestines or become lodged in the intricate twists and turns of their intestines.
Causes in Dogs
Bowel obstructions often develop when a dog's stomach or intestines become partially or completely blocked.
The most common types of bowel obstructions are foreign bodies. Every pooch is at risk of swallowing surprising items such as underwear, socks, dish towels, and toys. String, yarn, and rope fibers are especially hazardous for dogs because they can cause intestinal twisting. With older dogs, other common bowel obstructions to look out for are masses or tumors.
Causes in Cats
Ingestion of foreign bodies is the primary cause of intestinal obstruction, and it tends to occur more commonly in younger cats as they tend to be more likely to ingest inappropriate objects. Other possible causes of the condition include:
- Un-expelled hairballs
- A tumor
- Severe inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract
- Pyloric stenosis
- Intussusception (may be caused by intestinal parasites)
- Intestinal twisting
The Signs & Symptoms of Bowel Obstructions in Dogs & Cats
How do you know if your dog has a bowel obstruction? Here are some common symptoms and signs of intestinal blockages in dogs:
- Straining or unable to poop
- Loss of appetite
- Aggressive behavior when the abdomen is touched
- Painful abdomen to the touch
It can be easy to brush off the symptoms above as merely an upset stomach unless you have seen your dog or cat swallow a foreign object. But, if you think your pet has ingested something suspicious or they are exhibiting the signs detailed above, it's imperative to call your veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Diagnosing Bowel Obstructions in Dogs & Cats
If you saw your pet eat a foreign object, you might be wondering how you can help your dog pass the obstruction, but you should not attempt this on your own, your dog needs veterinary care.
Your vet will first perform a physical exam on your dog or cat, paying special attention to the abdomen. They may also perform blood work to determine if the blockage is affecting your pet's overall health.
From there, your dog will be taken to the in-house diagnostic lab for X-rays and any other imaging techniques needed in order to try and see the foreign object. One such test is an endoscopy, a procedure that inserts a small tube with a tiny attached camera through their throat and into the stomach. Your pet will be comfortably sedated for this procedure.
Treatment for Bowel Obstruction in Dogs & Cats
There are both surgical and non-surgical treatments available for bowel obstructions. There are many elements that have to be taken into consideration when determining which type of treatment to use including the location of the blockage, how long the object has been stuck, as well as the size, shape, and structure of the object.
If the affected cat is experiencing dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, it will need to be stabilized before any other treatments can be provided. Fluids and electrolytes will likely be administered intravenously and in some cases, plasma may be provided.
Sometimes vets can retrieve the foreign object with an endoscope. If this isn't possible, your vet will probably have to consult the ultrasound or X-rays to determine where (and what) the obstruction is.
Some foreign objects can pass on their own with time. But, when it comes to a timeline for intestinal blockage in dogs and cats, time is of the essence. If the object does not pass on its own or your pet has the symptoms listed above, they will require urgent treatment as quickly as possible.
Your vet will order surgery if they determine that the foreign object presents an immediate danger.
Bowel Obstruction Surgery for Dogs & Cats
Bowel obstruction surgery is a major procedure for both dogs and cats, which will require anesthesia. After the surgery, your pet will need to stay at the hospital for a few days to recover.
For the intestinal surgery, your vet will make an incision into the abdomen near the blockage site and carefully extract the object. The length of surgery can vary because they may need to repair any damage to the stomach or intestinal wall resulting from the obstruction.
Your pets survival after surgery to remove an intestinal blockage depends on a few things:
- The health of your dog prior to the surgery
- Size, shape, and location of the foreign object
- How long the foreign object has been stuck in the intestines
The physical exam and diagnostic tests that your vet performs prior to your pup's surgery will help them get a better understanding of how well your dog will recover following surgery. However the faster the surgery can be performed, the better.
Pet Recovery After Bowel Obstruction Surgery
The most critical period for your dog is the first 72 hours after surgery. If the patient is doing well after 72 hours then they typically recover well, but there are still some potential complications:
- Sepsis (blood poisoning)
- Hypoalbuminemia (low protein count)
- Dehiscence (Wound separation or opening)
After surgery and hospitalization, monitor your pet and keep their activity level very low. For at least a week, only take them for short walks— you don’t want their sutures to tear. Your furry friend will also need to wear a cone to keep them from licking or chewing the incision as it heals.
It’s important that you only feed your pet small amounts of bland food, before gradually transitioning them to their regular diet. You also need to ensure that they are getting enough fluids in order to keep them from getting dehydrated.
Major surgery is painful, and while they won’t experience any pain during the surgery, but will most likely feel some pain afterward. Your vet will prescribe post-surgery pain medication. It's important that you carefully follow your vet's prescription instructions to manage your pets pain at home and to keep infections from taking hold.
Anesthesia can make some animals feel nauseated after surgery and it’s actually common for them to vomit afterward. So, your vet may also prescribe medications to relieve their nausea and vomiting, if needed.
Preventing Bowel Obstructions in Dogs & Cats
The best way to prevent intestinal blockages in your dog is to limit their chances of ingesting non-food material.
- Putting things your dog may eat out of their reach.
- Be vigilant about items in the house and track when they are missing.
- Keep an eye on your dog while they are playing with their toys or chewing on rawhide or bones.
- Keep your dogs from scavenging through garbage and debris (outside and inside the house).
If you have a naturally curious and playful cat that likes to explore, or if your cat has a history of eating things that could block up the intestinal tract, try "cat proofing" your house. Put items that your cat might eat in a secured drawer or cabinet, especially rubber bands, paper, wool, hair ties, or scrunchies — cats seem to have a particular love for hair accessories. Supervise your cat playing with small toys and then put them away when you aren't able to observe. If your cat likes to eat plants, you may need to prevent access to houseplants as well.
To prevent bowel obstructions due to hairballs, there are a number of ways to manage their fur. Proper grooming especially if they are long-haired or shedding can go a long way toward keeping your cat's intestines clear of hairballs.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.